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Could the Packers go all-in on small ball defense?

Mike Pettine loves to play sub-package defense to the point it’s no longer fair to call it that. Green Bay’s base defense is nickel or smaller and it’s not hard to imagine Brian Gutekunst adding pieces to make that easier.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 13 CFP National Championship - LSU v Clemson
Grant Delpit as a third safety would open up the Packers defense and allow them to worry less about who is playing LB.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It would never work. The run game still matters. You can’t play small and win the NFL. And jump-shooting teams can’t win titles. Sports truisms are inherently time-sensitive. No matter the sport, the game moves and evolves too quickly for conventional wisdom to be right for very long and the Green Bay Packers are currently testing those limits with a downsized defense. What if they went full Houston Rockets? Screw size, we want shooting, shooting, wing defense, and more shooting. Run defense be damned — be the fastest, playmaking-est defense in football.

The theory would be to play Oren Burks or Curtis Bolton without adding big at the true linebacker spot, then using considerable resources — like a first-round pick — to add a sub-package box defender who can play in the slot or deep as well.

Think more Grant Delpit and less Patrick Queen.

Finding a do-it-all inside linebacker turns out to be difficult. There are only a precious few in the draft, and only one or two in free agency. Instead of worrying about it, Brian Gutekunst could decide the wiser choice is throwing resources at his running mate, someone who, by trade, does the things they want a linebacker to do, but that most can’t.

Go all-in on playing small by finding the best small guys they can.

After getting steamrolled on the ground by the 49ers, one might think there’s no way the Packers could consider going full-time with a downsized lineup. Here’s the problem with that argument: they already have. Last season, Mike Pettine had the Packers in sub-package defense around 70% of the time. Raven Greene, in his lone full game of the season, played 77% of snaps against the Bears as a de facto linebacker.

Blake Martinez’s deficiencies only made it easier to justify pairing him with a faster cover player, but if the Packers want to play this way as often as they’ve shown, they could consider prioritizing that diverse skillset player over the true linebacker. Pettine’s preference toward interchangeable players and versatile skillsets underscores this potential path forward for the Green Bay defense.

Adding a premium asset as a third safety, a non-premium position, would be unique in the NFL, but not in football broadly. College teams already play this way consistently, prioritizing smaller, faster linebackers to accommodate defending the myriad spread offenses in the NCAA. They even call them something else, whether it’s the STAR position or the money linebacker. Teams deploy them differently, with each team asking them to handle diverse tasks.

Even a player like the aforementioned Queen, a linebacker by title at LSU, only stands 6-foot-1, 227. What college defenses decided is that it’s preferable to play a downhill thumper or a pass rushing inside ‘backer, players that are much easier to find and coach, next to a smaller hybrid player. Very few college teams have two guys who can do it all, so they’ve gone with complementary skillsets.

The Packers already play this way. In fact, Oren Burks played safety before moving to linebacker and played that money ‘backer spot at Vanderbilt. His shortcomings in the NFL aren’t a lack of tools to do what is asked. Burks is still learning the game from his spot closer to the line of scrimmage, how to read and react.

Playing Blake Martinez, a limited, downhill run-stopper, next to Greene or Ibraheim Campbell, looks like what’s going on at the college level. So, instead of chasing the one or two guys you think might be able to do more in the NFL, draft (or sign) the guy who plays next to him. Focus on Xavier McKinney, Grant Delpit or Ashtyn Davis this spring rather than Kenneth Murray, Queen, or Troy Dye.

The pros and cons of this approach are each distinctly obvious. Adding a player who can run and cover would allow the Packers to be multiple with Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. Though Amos would thrive in a box role, limiting him to only the box takes away from what he’s capable of, like only driving a four-wheel drive truck on the highway. At a certain point, the fun is taking it into the woods.

Savage, a former cornerback, could play more in the slot, something he did at Maryland, as well as in the box as a playmaking rover. Much like Amos, limiting him to a deep half and deep middle safety undercuts his value. Particularly against teams like the Eagles and 49ers, offenses capable of playing big and beating you with the run or pass, this approach works because you have multiple players to cover their offensive chess pieces.

As currently constructed, the Packers can’t match Zach Ertz/Dallas Goedert pairing or a George Kittle/Kyle Juszczyk, and not just because they can’t stop the run.

That flaw, though, provides the most obvious con to such an approach. Playing so small would make it easier to run against. Against most teams, that’s not that big a boon for the opponent. Against the Vikings and 49ers, two teams against whom the Packers will have to win to get out of the NFC, that’s their wheelhouse, as everyone saw in the NFC Championship Game.

There are a couple rejoinders here. The first is the Kansas City Chiefs were a worse run defense than the Packers by DVOA last season, and they played much better against the San Francisco run game in the Super Bowl. Their linebackers aren’t any faster. Their defensive front doesn’t have more talent. They simply played better. And that’s a good start for the Packers: have your best guys play better. Za’Darius and Preston Smith didn’t set the edge with force, Kenny Clark didn’t eat up blocks like he normally does, and the safeties picked the wrong time to play their worst games of the season, taking bad angles or missing tackles.

Secondly, the Packers offense didn’t play well enough to keep the 49ers honest. Teams with the lead can keep running. It’s much harder to stick with the run game, even when it’s working, when you’re trying to catch up. Had Aaron Rodgers played as well in the first half of the NFC Championship Game as he did in the second half, the 49ers would have to let Jimmy Garoppolo sling it and we know that’s what Mike Pettine wants. It’s what his defense is built to stop.

If Rodgers and the offense can play more consistent football, not be 25th in avoiding three-and-outs, the Packers’ run defense matters far less. Given the Packers’ likely plan to upgrade the offense with an infusion of talent this offseason, the goal would be to solve this problem irrespective of the approach at adding overhang defenders.

Beefing up the defensive line could be part of the story as well. Adding former Lions nose tackle Damon Harrison, suddenly looking for work as his career comes to an end, would only make it easier to go small behind him. Remember how much more effective Blake Martinez was when he had Clark and Mike Daniels soaking up blockers?

The good news for the Pettine is Brian Gutekunst can theoretically care about both enough to add. Pairing Nick Kwiatkoski in free agency with Delpit in the draft suddenly changes the defense in a fundamental way. Such an approach still prioritizes the addition of speed and playmaking to the box, but the primo resources go to the hybrid player not the linebacker. They could even draft a pair of box players and go heavy on a young, athletic, re-tooled defense.

Rather than beefing up the defensive line, as so many fans want to make life easier on whoever the base linebacker will be, there’s wisdom in the simplicity of saying “Why not just make the whole plane out of the black box?” and add the speed and cover ability the team wants from a linebacker in a player whose job it’s always been to be fast and cover. It’s going to be harder to find a linebacker who can do that, and much easier, particularly in the draft, to find a hybrid player.

With that nickel linebacker becoming a full-time position or something close to it for the Packers, prioritizing a talent upgrade over Raven Greene and Ibraheim Campbell would make sense regardless of how the team approaches the true linebacker spot. Particularly given an uninspiring free agent and draft class at linebacker, with players either too expensive or not good enough to bother adding, Green Bay could still find a way to bolster its box play without focusing on adding a traditional linebacker.

A draft like this could be exactly what the Packers need for how they want to play:

Via The Draft Network